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Spain’s Ceuta: A Dangerous Game by Alex Calvo


Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, and Head of the IR Department, at European University (Barcelona Campus), and a guest professor at Nagoya University. An expert on Asian security and defense issues, he got his LLB from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and is currently doing an MA in Second World War Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is a former teaching and research fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).

The article is reprinted with permission of the author. The views expressed are exclusively those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Common Sense. 

On Friday 19 June, two Russian warships docked in Ceuta, where they are expected to remain until Tuesday 23 June. Amphibious assault ship Alexander Shabalin and Tanker Ivan Bubnov will take fuel, water, and other supplies, as well as carrying out maintenance, while their crews enjoy liberty. Strategically located opposite Gibraltar, in one of the world’s busies maritime chokepoints, Ceuta is administered by Spain, enjoying the status of “autonomous city”, while also claimed by Morocco. This is the ninth such port visit in the year to date, 13 having taken place in 2014.


The arrival of the two Russian warships was greeted by the local press, which stressed their positive impact on the local economy. Ceuta Daily “El Pueblo de Ceuta” explained, in an upbeat report, that Alexander Shabalin had taken 300 tons of fuel and 150 of water, while tanker Ivan Bubnov took 3,750 tons of fuel. The report explained that their crews, 140 and 60-strong respectively, would have the chance to visit the city, adding that this was the ninth such port visit in the year to date. Praising Ceuta Port Authority for the policy launched “five years ago” to “manage the arrival of Russian units for resupply purposes”, the text underlined the positive impact on “the city’s trading economy”, facilitated by the “attention and treatment” metered out to Russian sailors by local shops.

The interest from local media outlets on Russia’s naval presence in Ceuta, and the positive tone of their reports, stands in stark contrast with the news blackout followed by Madrid-based newspapers. Mainstream dailies such as El País, ABC, La Razon, or El Mundo, have persistently failed to inform readers about the Russian Navy’s presence in Ceuta. The Spanish capital’s think-tanks have followed a similar line, choosing to avoid the issue in their reports on Spanish-Russian bilateral relations or the current crisis between Moscow and the West. For example, these two Spanish-language reports by Madrid-based Real Instituto Elcano do not contain the word “Ceuta”: “Restoring and Redefining Relations With Russia” (17 November 2014), “The Russian ‘Droplet’, the Ukraine, and Russia’s Confrontation with the West” (4 February 2015), and neither does the English-language paper “How should Europe respond to Russia? The Spanish view” (18 November 2014), published by the European Council on Foreign Relation’s Madrid Office.

The matter is indeed delicate for Spain, a EU and NATO member supposed to be implementing sanctions against Moscow prompted by the Ukrainian crisis. However, the decision by the West to impose sanctions on Russia has not slowed down the pace of logistical cooperation with Moscow. Rather the contrary, since nine port visits have already taken place in less than half year, whereas 13 took place in the whole of 2014. Fellow NATO members may have mostly chosen not to criticize Madrid in public, but this does not mean they condone the latter’s decision. Some think-tanks and observers have been quick to point out this discrepancy between Allied policy and Spanish practice. The Heritage Foundation argued last year that “This behavior is unbecoming of 21st-century NATO allies”, adding that “The U.S. should work with likeminded NATO partners to apply pressure” on Spain to end “military assistance to Russia”. A 2014 report by the House of Common’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Gibraltar referred to that report, quoting “Spain’s policy of allowing the Russian navy to use Ceuta in North Africa is also hypocritical in relation to its reluctance to allow visits from NATO ships to or from the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar directly to or from Spanish ports. Therefore, under certain circumstances Spain would rather have a Russian ship visit a Spanish port than a NATO ship”.

Thanks to its location, right where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, Ceuta allows the Russian Navy to extend its operational reach, maintaining a constant presence in waters of great importance. According to naval analyst Pol Molas, “The importance of Ceuta in the Russian naval strategy could be seen as an informal approach to the Sir Julian Corbett’s principles”. Molas believes that “Ceuta is not the Mediterranean equivalent of former British Singapore, but it is useful when it comes to sustaining small task forces on ‘presence’ missions”.

Catalonia’s national security community has been following carefully Spanish policy towards Russia, including the decision to provide logistical support to the Russian Navy. Ceuta has featured in informal discussions with other concerned parties. There are two basic reasons why Catalonia is worried about Madrid’s decision not to implement Western sanctions. The first involves security in the Mediterranean,  the second the possible resort to force by Spain to try to prevent Catalonia from recovering her independence.

With regard to the security of NATO’s Southern flank, Catalan President Artur Mas has already made clear publicly that “Catalonia is called to become an anchor of stability in Europe and the Mediterranean”, adding that the country will be a “reliable partner, fully assuming our international obligations from the very start”. While Catalonia is eager to be on good terms with Spain following a “civilized” divorce, rising tensions between NATO and Russia could easily spill over into the bilateral arena. Should Spain tilt even further towards Russia, Catalonia may find herself turned into a front-line state in this new “Cold War”. The likely absence of agreed maritime borders, and a complex political situation in the Balearic Islands, may add fuel to the fire, as could tensions between Madrid and London over Gibraltar. Furthermore, any widening of the gap between Spanish and US policy on Russia may easily cast doubts on the wisdom of basing components of NATO’s missile shield in Rota and USMC rapid-reaction forces in Moron.

Concerning the possible resort to force by Madrid, Catalan observers have traditionally defended the view that Spain’s need to remain in the euro zone would limit her options. According to a widespread view, Brussels will ultimately be forced to broker a deal to split the country’s national debt, whereby Catalonia takes over a (probably disproportionate) portion in exchange for swift Spanish recognition and a pledge not to use force. This, despite the wording of the 1978 Constitution, where the Spanish military granted themselves the right to resort to arms to prevent Catalonia and other territories from leaving Spain. While this scenario is likely, it is by no means the only one. Spain may well decide to leave the euro in order to gain a free hand, refusing to recognize Catalonia and employing force to try to keep her. This may take the form of an “enclave strategy” and would require another source of financial support. While a combination of sanctions and lower energy prices have put a dent on Moscow’s ability to play such a role, the risk remains that pride may overcome common sense in Madrid.

To conclude, the arrival in Ceuta of two further Russian warships has once again raised the question of Spain’s failure to implement sanctions against Russia, and more generally the issue of Madrid’s policy stance towards NATO and Moscow. While Madrid-based media and think-tanks adhere to a strict news blackout on Russia’s naval presence in Ceuta, the Catalan national security community is following very carefully Spanish policy towards Moscow and Russian naval activities in the Mediterranean. Barcelona’s concerns are shared by other Western capitals. While eager to be on good terms with Spain after recovering independence, Catalonia is even more determined to be a cornerstone of security in the Mediterranean. Therefore, in order to prevent a deterioration of the Atlantic Alliance’s position in the Mediterranean and an irritant in bilateral relations with Madrid, now is the time for Washington and fellow Allies to act, ensuring that NATO stands united in these rather trying times.


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